Referendum Relevance

With the beginning of the new semester comes a new Undergraduate Council, its members hoping to represent the student body’s wishes and advocate for their ideas. Students can also make their voices heard through the referendum process, by which students can submit proposals advocating for change at Harvard. These statements, if approved by the majority voters of at least 50 percent of the student body, then become binding UC policy.

There are some issues with the referendum process, however, that need to be addressed if the UC is accurately to maintain that it is representing the positions of the majority of the student body. These problems also need fixing if referenda are to be perceived as legitimate expressions of student positions on administrative policy.


The referenda questions in their current form offer little background to the questions at hand, perhaps in order to make sure that those questions are worded in an unbiased fashion. The water bottle referendum question this past fall, for instance, offered no history or statistics. Therefore, while students could vote based on the abstract ideas of green energy and sustainability versus practicality, they were not given relevant information such as the number of bottles tossed daily, the quantifiable impact this has on the environment, and the amount of money the school would lose by ceasing to sell water bottles.

Moreover, those proposing referenda should research the effects of potential policies before sending them out for approval. For example, would most students actually bring around reusable water bottles? Or would they simply purchase soda at the vending machines and cafes instead, leading to a less healthy campus that has not become any more environmentally friendly? The UC should study related implications like these and offer the results of this analysis to students prior to the vote.

While the UC does publish pro and con statements regarding each referendum proposal, the statements are limited in length and generally not expected to have detailed statistical analysis. As such, though the information is beneficial, most statements are phrased more as abstract arguments than as detailed cost-benefit analyses and consequently still fail to provide an adequate amount of information to the voters.

If the UC were to give students the statistics and history before the vote, it is possible that students would choose differently, more in accordance with what they believe to be practical than what they support on an abstract, idealistic level. Additionally, perhaps other students would be motivated to vote, as they would see the referenda as more legitimate and important.

Regardless of whether additional information would ultimately have an impact on the results, the UC would still be able to more state with real authority that their new policies reflect the well-informed opinions of the student body.


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